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Eight Things You Didn’t Know About Groundhogs

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Happy Groundhog Day! Today is the day each year in which we look towards a giant rodent to find out how much more winter we’ll have to endure. This year, we probably know the answer: winter hasn’t been very wintery, even for Los Angeles. Raleigh, on the other hand, is freezing for this LA boy.

According to tradition, the groundhog (Marmota monax) peeks out of its burrow today, and checks to see if it has a shadow. If sunny enough for a shadow, the groundhog will return to the comfort of its burrow, and winter will continue for an additional six weeks.

In honor of the holiday, I’ve rounded up eight things about groundhogs that you probably didn’t know.

1. A groundhog by any other name. Groundhogs are also variously referred to as woodchucks, whistle-pigs, land-beavers, or marmots. The name whistle-pig comes from the fact that, when alarmed, a groundhog will emit a high-pitched whistle as a warning to the rest of his or her colony. The name woodchuck has nothing to do with wood. Or chucking. It is derived from the Algonquian name for the critters, wuchak.

2. Home sweet home. Both male and female groundhogs tend to occupy the same territories year after year. For females, there is very little overlap between home ranges except for the late spring and early summer, as females try to expand their territories. During this time, their ranges may overlap by as much as ten percent. Males have non-overlapping territories as well, though any male territory coincides with one to three mature females’ territories.

3. Baby groundhogs! Infants stick around home for only about two to three months after being born in mid-April, and then they disperse and leave mom’s burrow. However, a significant proportion – thirty five percent – of females stick around longer, leaving home just after their first birthdays, right before mom’s new litter arrives.

4. Family values. In general, groundhog social groups consist of one adult male and two adult females, each with an offspring from the previous breeding season (usually female), and the current litter of infants. Interactions within a female’s group are generally friendly. But interactions between female groups – even when those groups are shared by the same adult male – are rare and aggressive. Even though daddy woodchuck doesn’t live at home, from the breeding season through the first month of the infants’ lives, he visits each of his female groups every day.

5. Medical models. Groundhogs happen to be a good animal model for the study of hepatitis B-induced liver cancer. In fact, if infected with Woodchuck Hepatitis B virus, the animal will always go on to develop liver cancer, making them useful for the study both of liver cancer and of hepatitis B.

6. Look up! Though they spend most of their time on or under the ground, groundhogs can also climb trees.

7. Eskimo kisses. Groundhogs greet each other with an odd variation of the eskimo kiss: one groundhog approaches and touches his or her nose to the mouth of the second groundhog. Or, as scientists call it, they make “naso-oral contact.”

8. Marmots everywhere! There are – count ‘em – fourteen species of marmot found throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

Meier, P. (1992). Social organization of woodchucks (Marmota monax) Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 31 (6) DOI: 10.1007/BF00170606

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/April King.

Jason G. Goldman About the Author: Dr. Jason G. Goldman received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studied the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. Jason is also an editor at ScienceSeeker and Editor of Open Lab 2010. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow on . Follow on Twitter @jgold85.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Mythusmage 11:27 pm 02/1/2013

    You missed one: The Black Death of the 13th Century got started as a mutant Plague Bacillus in a Manchurian marmot.

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  2. 2. ACTORwriter 8:47 am 02/2/2013

    A couple of years ago, I had a couple of female groundhogs (woodchucks) living under my out-door shed. From time to time one of their babies would venture over to where I was sitting (writing on my play) and be willing to eat a long carrot I held in my hand. I have a video of him enjoying a delicious carrot. Several of the six babies would also be brave enough to join in on the feast. Mom, however, was far less friendly that way.

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  3. 3. curmudgeon 1:05 pm 02/2/2013

    As I don’t remember there being much in the way of bacteriology in the 13th Century, even in China, I’d suggest that that would hardly rate as much more than a hypothesis rather than a fact. But, in any case, the article only offered to tell us 8 things we didn’t know, not everything we didn’t know, which would, I suspect, be rather longer as an article than SciAm has allowed for!

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  4. 4. Vasha 9:55 pm 02/2/2013

    Mythusmage, what’s the reference on that? I wasn’t aware that the origin of the plague was actually identified (although there’s lots of hypotheses).

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  5. 5. Mythusmage 9:22 pm 02/3/2013


    Name the three Plague hot spots on Earth.

    Where did the Black Death come from originally, and how was it transported across Central Asia?

    How did the Genoan ship carry it from Crimea to Genoa in Italy?

    How are marmots treated in Manchuria?

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  6. 6. Mythusmage 9:23 pm 02/3/2013

    #3. How does not knowing in the 12th century keep up from knowing in the 21st?

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  7. 7. woodswoman1 5:44 pm 02/6/2013

    I live in Northwestern Ontario and my favorite thing to do each spring/summer is play with the groundhogs. They are easily trained to come to me after 3 or 4 times of offering food. The females are easier to train and they will bring the babies up to me when they are old enough. All groundhogs love bananas and any grain made foods. They will eat almost anything and a lot of it; I try to feed them healthy cereals. Within a couple weeks of feeding them, I will start touching their cheeks and they will hold my finger while I feed them from my hand. They never attempt to bite me. Once they trust you, you can rub their heads and bodies. I have actually had them lay down on my picnic table while I give them a rub down. They will recognize your voice and come running when you appear outdoors. If you read up on them you will find that they are one of the cleanest animals on earth. They even burrow a bathroom separate from their other burrowed rooms. Sweet little critters.

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